Why & How to Layer a Mixed Border for Fantastic Effects

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


Beautifully layered Mixed Border in the Seattle Park Arboretum Winter Garden

I work with a lot of newbie gardeners, and there are a few design related mistakes they make consistently.

Struggling to design and install a professional looking mixed border is certainly one of them. Creating a bed that looks as lush and lovely as their favorite garden photos is by far their most consistent conundrum.

Sure, we all drool over those gorgeous magazine spreads and Pinterest pictures, but translating those looks into our own garden beds isn’t something that auto-magically happens. But, by using a dash of layering mixed with a sprinkling of color, texture and year-round interest plantings, topped off with structural elements, any gardener can create the garden bed of their dreams.

So first: What is layering?

Think of the depth of a garden bed. And bydepth, I mean how far it is from the front edge where the bed meets a patio, deck, lawn, path or other non-bed element to the back where the bed meets up with a fence, wall, forest or other end point. Within that bed depth, designers think of plantings in terms of mixed heights that build layers from low, ground-hugging levels at the front edge, gaining height in ever-taller “layers” as you proceed toward the rear of the bed. If your bed happens to be an island shape with no defined “back”, it still moves from low at the front edge to high in the middle and back to low on the opposite side of the island shape.

Finding subtlety in building these layers without creating a mixed border that looks like military lines may take a bit of fine-tuning. Sometimes a punctuation mark of height popped into a grouping of lower plants is necessary. Quite often, an element that has its shining moment in summer may be completely gone in winter. Picking up the cold season slack, design in an element that struts its stuff in winter. Later, that cool season superstar may simply become a backdrop against which the summer star shines.


Fiskars watering can in mixed border


Mixing textures, shapes and colors is another part of layering the border. To create mixed interest, a designer is not likely to place two broad leaf evergreen shrubs with shiny leaves next to each other. Instead, a single mid-size, evergreen shrub like a spring blooming Azalea might be better if partnered with a winter-blooming Witch Hazel above it, a summer flowering Hydrangea beside it, and an autumn-flowering Autumn Joy Sedum in front of it with a naturalizing swath of Black Mondo grass at the lowest, front point. This mix of textures, forms, bloom times and sizes creates a layering effect via mixed heights, mixed seasons of interest, and mixed textures.


Fiskars pop up compost bin incorporated into a mixed layer bed


While plants play a big part in creating a gorgeous, mixed-interest, layered garden bed, adding in structural elements can really be that cherry on the sundae. For instance, incorporating a tall art element toward the middle-back of a mixed border offers the eye something interesting year-round, plus it will draw the eye upward into the higher layers of the garden bed. Lower boulders can also provide for easy-care, every-season border elements that anchor any portion of the layering heights within the design. Even tucking in something functional like a dark, Fiskars Eco-Bin composter can add interest. Or, it can simply serve as a dark backdrop against which something really special can pop.

Finally, avoid another common new designer blunder, and remember that those little plants you buy from the nursery are going to grow – some upward, some outward, and some all over the place. Install your plants with the goal of watching them mature over time into a lush, layered bed. Think ahead and plan to divide and transplant spreading perennials into any empty spots in the future. Overcrowding your bed to force a lush, layered look in the first year may result in any number of longer term problems no gardener wants to face. Planning for the longer term will help you design like a pro and enjoy a gorgeous, magazine-spread worthy garden every pinner will want to Pin!